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Robert Curry’s Common Sense Nation provides a layman’s guide for approaching the philosophical underpinning of the American founding, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. But this spritely book also challenges the conventional wisdom of revolutionary era scholars with a fresh takes on several important overlooked influences on the birth of our nation.
Below are three compelling areas where Curry breaks from the status quo:
Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville is often cited as the authority on early America based on his vibrant account of the fledgling nation in Democracy in America.
However, Curry challenges two of Tocqueville’s more popular assertions.
The first concerns a passage famously quoted from Tocqueville on Americans’ supposed lack of interest in theoretical pursuits:
“I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”
Curry contends that, on the contrary, at the time of the Founding-and Tocqueville’s visit in 1831-America was in fact “the preeminently philosophical nation”:
“America was dedicated to a philosophical truth, the proposition that all men are created equal. That truth, the design of the Constitution, and the Founders’ vision for how American society and the American economy are to operate were grounded in the common sense realism of the American Enlightenment. America, the common sense nation, was the one nation in the world fully prepared and capable of applying philosophical theories boldly and effectively.”
Tocqueville also challenged the success of the Enlightenment’s religious views in America:
“There is no country in the world in which the boldest political theories of the eighteenth-century philosophers are put so effectively into practice as in America. Only their anti-religious doctrines have never made any headway in that country.”
“There was a simple reason Tocqueville found that the anti-religious doctrines of the French Enlightenment had never made any headway in America. The Founders had not relied on the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. The Founders relied on an entirely different set of eighteenth century philosophers. Those Enlightenment philosophers and the Founders shared neither the anti-religious views nor the political theories of the French.”
A central piece of Common Sense Nation‘s thesis is that the so-called British Enlightenment was not at the root of the American Enlightenment.
While our founding rests on the shoulders of men like John Locke, it was, according to Curry, the Scottish Enlightenment figures who built upon Locke that more profoundly influenced American thinking.
Curry explains :
“[T]he Founders were convinced by [Francis] Hutcheson, [Adam] Smith, [Thomas] Reid, and their Scottish colleagues. The Founders, in the words of Gordon Wood in his book The American Revolution, “identified with Scottish moral or commonsense thinking … thereby avoiding “the worst and most frightening implications of Lockean sensationalism.”
The Founders used the Scots’ account of the moral sense and common sense to conduct what [Gertrude] Himmelfarb refers to as their “systematic analysis of the political and social institutions that would promote and protect liberty.” The Scots had done the brilliant theoretical work that opened the way for the success of the Founders’ systematic analysis and, therefore, for the success of the Founding.
Adam Smith’s influence on the American founding extended well beyond economics.
Curry tells us the story of Smith’s unwritten third major work—a book that may have culminated in one of the most integral documents in American history:
Smith planned to produce, and often referred to, a third major work, a book on political theory. The third book was long delayed and finally never published. At Smith’s insistence, his manuscript notes for the book were burned when he died.
The non-existence of the book on political theory has been minutely examined by Smith scholars. We know that Smith’s position as tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch had provided him with more time for philosophical work than his teaching load and administrative responsibilities at Glasgow had allowed, enabling him to finish The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The scholarly consensus is that Smith’s decision to turn down a subsequent offer to be tutor to the young Duke of Hamilton was a tragic error. Smith instead accepted an appointment to the Scottish Commissionership of Customs in 1778. The demands of the office together with Smith’s characteristic conscientiousness left him little time for philosophy. The final act, the burning of his notes, has served to heighten the sense of loss associated with the missing third book.
However, we can, with Charles Murray, safely assume that the book would have extended the arguments of Sentiments and Wealth, applying the same principles noted above to the theory of political liberty.
Although we do not have Smith’s book, we do have a masterpiece from exactly that time which very precisely fits the pattern suggested by Murray. I am of course referring to The Federalist Papers, the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, with much help from James Madison and, to a lesser extent, John Jay. The timing is certainly right. Sentiments was published in 1759, Wealth, in 1776, and The Federalist Papers, in 1788, just in time to fit into Smith’s life and work; Smith died in 1790.
To suggest, as I am, that we have in The Federalist Papers a worthy fulfillment of Smith’s promised third book by three Americans working in Smith’s tradition may not actually be that far-fetched. Of course, we know that the Founders were steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment tradition, and that the American Enlightenment was deeply rooted in the Scottish one.
…If Smith had been free to focus his time and energy on the third book, we can safely assume he would have followed closely the fast-paced learning process of the Founders, and that what he learned from the Founders would have greatly influenced that book. It is likely that the Americans’ influence would have even been greater than it was on The Wealth of Nations itself.
Provided with a society unencumbered by a feudal past with which to experiment, placed by a unique historical circumstance in positions of political leadership that made it possible for them to conduct their experiments, and fully equipped with the innovations of the Scottish Enlightenment, the authors of The Federalist Papers were uniquely positioned to carry Adam Smith’s great project to a successful conclusion, and as Jefferson wrote, create the best commentary on the principles of government ever written.
For more on Common Sense Nation, listen to my exclusive interview with author Robert Curry below: